Authors: Sarah Michelle Lynch
“It is sad,” she nodded slowly. “It’s something I cannot let go of.”
She hid her face behind a hand.
“Let go of?”
She lifted her head, her face contorted, “Too many things do not add up.”
“What things?” I waited patiently for a response but nothing came. She looked physically and emotionally in pain. Jennifer Matthews. In pain.
“Cai told me his parents killed themselves?” I scratched my chin and felt sorry for her.
“They’re all dead. I just, don’t know how,” she said, in a small, fragile voice.
“It is sad,” I repeated.
“I should book a therapy session,” she said, “I’ve been meaning to and it’s the headaches… they have come back now, too. They’ve gotten worse. It’s the strain, the stress of it all.”
“Your job must be stressful,” I offered in a friendly way.
“No, it’s not the job. No. I can do that standing on my head. It’s the puzzle… the one I haven’t been able to solve. It’s driven me crazy all these years… now he’s changing, I wonder why. After all these years. What has happened to change Cai?”
She lifted her eyes to mine. “How the killer escaped, of course.”
“What, killer?” I felt chilled and looked at her carefully, wondering whether this woman was quite in charge of her faculties.
“Come with me,” she said, and we headed out of the room. The dogs chased our tails, my teacup my only consolatory aid along the way.
“Where are we going? You do know Cai will be back soon, don’t you?” I argued but my words fell on deaf ears.
As we walked the corridors and two flights of stairs she explained, “My family grew roses… it goes back generations. My grandfather—that is my father’s father—tended royal gardens up and down the country. His skill was highly sought-after. Before our parents divorced, we used to holiday at a house in the Surrey hills where a unique rose my grandfather cultivated grew. It was wild but too beautiful to be graded as such. A climbing rose… it wound itself around any frame. It was affectionately termed by our family as the Claudia Rose, because she was so beautiful. So beautiful. I grew up thinking it, not minding everyone loved her more. I knew she needed the love, you see, her soul was much deeper and harder to reach than most. She needed the adoration whereas, I just needed employment and despite this,” Jennifer lifted her naked hands, “I eventually found my station.”
“This rose… it flowered quickly and died?” My head swam with this revelation.
“Yes, how did you know?” She arched a brow.
I turned and gazed straight into her eye. “Someone sent me one.”
Her eyes widened. “No.”
Her hand over her mouth, we continued to travel upstairs.
“Cai… he… not long after the funeral, one night he went out into the gardens here and killed all of them. They reminded him too much of his mother.”
“He… killed, them all? How?”
“Acid. Then petrol, setting them ablaze. Dirk assured me they would never re-grow, and they haven’t.”
“Oh, that is a shame. What about the Surrey house?”
“When our grandfather died, my father and uncle sold that house and we haven’t been there in decades. All I know is that Uncle Chester had some cuttings of the rose transplanted here
when he took up residence, and it grew again. Later under Philippe’s watch, he cross-pollinated it once more and perfected the species so it didn’t die so quickly. I suppose gardeners have their secrets you know, dear, and my granddaddy certainly had his, though he never revealed them of course. No artist worth their salt ever would.”
This story had my attention, my senses heightened. I waited impatiently for more.
We reached a room without a sign on the door and Jennifer pushed on the handle, swinging the door inwards. We stepped inside an L-shaped room and she continued to give me a commentary. “This was my sister’s workspace. It has been kept as was because it was hers and this house, is still hers. I think Cai shouldn’t sell and I’ve told him so, lots of times. This is heritage, right here.”
I looked around the large, sparse room and placed my empty cup on a window ledge. “She painted in here?”
It wasn’t furnished much at all, except for two chairs by a window, an easel stood before a fireplace. A chaise longue with folded blankets awaited someone who needed a rest. The wallpaper on the chimney breast was black with white roses, kind of seemed typical of a house like this. The rest of the walls were painted a dark-grey and the waxed floors gleamed, still maintained it seemed.
“When people stay here, don’t they ask about this room?”
She nodded. “Claire usually keeps the door locked but they do ask, and we always just say it is under maintenance.”
“I wonder if many people come seeking answers about the tortured artist who once lived here.”
“Perhaps they do.” Jennifer shrugged as I walked around and absorbed the feel of the room.
“What did she paint…? I read an article and I know the kind of skills she had, but what kind of pictures did she paint? Are they still in existence?”
“Claudia painted the rose. I don’t know why. She painted it over and over again and not one survived. Not one painting… except
the last one
, I think.”
I turned my ear to hear. “Say what?
The last one
“The one she was painting before she died. This is where the puzzle begins, Chloe,” Jennifer said half-excitedly, as though to share the story was both a thrilling mindbender and a curse.
“Start from the beginning, so that we might share the same evidence. The critical facts,” I said, asking her like I was back at the
, gathering the cold, hard truths.
“Okay,” she said, gesturing at some old chairs near the window so we could sit and she could explain. “We know Philippe drove off a bridge which was strange enough. The man was a weed, wouldn’t die, why would he kill himself? Though… he did leave a note. It was verified… the handwriting his. However, bizarre as it sounds, no body was ever found. The man bounces off a bridge and somehow out of his car, never to be found. It wasn’t a deep river, it wasn’t as treacherous as say the Hudson. How would this happen? But did you know… Philippe, Cai’s father, was wanted in Mexico for drug trafficking and numerous murders he committed in getting himself free of that country? He skipped out on his brothers and loyalty is not something taken lightly there… he lost his protection as soon as he left. Lucky for him my uncle was looking for a fantastic gardener and Philippe was that, skilled enough to even grow his own crop of opium here and sell it to those who might distribute it through the streets of New York.”
I held my hand up. “Pardon? He grew drugs, here? Why? This family has money!”
money, Chloe. My sister
a drink problem. A canvas replenishment fund that was bottomless. A bad temper, a son to feed, a gardener, housekeeper and butler to pay. Her paintings did not sell, because she destroyed them all.”
I stared, confused, bamboozled. “Cai did tell me this house was the only asset.”
“He was telling the truth. When I came along, it was in total ruin. I had to use my own funds to pay for renovations so it could become a venue and make some money back. Cai would have lost it otherwise.”
I searched through what I knew and offered, “Perhaps Philippe escaped?”
“He could’ve done. Or perhaps he never took his own life but was carted off back to where he came from.”
“I see. That is one possibility.” For, a possibility it was. “So, Philippe never showed up again, anyway? Whether a body was discovered or not?”
“No. Not as far as we know. All we know… is that two weeks after he careered off a bridge, my sister called a magazine in New York and told them she had completed her life’s work. She assured them the painting had been bequeathed in her will to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
“So, then…?” My mind frantically raced.
“She seemingly took her own life and this painting, whatever it was… disappeared after her death. Gone. Poof. Claire did not know where it went, nor Dirk. They knew she had been painting, heard her working. Claire even caught a glimpse of it one day. Yet within the blink of an eye, the thing disappeared along with my sister’s soul. Gone. I would like to imagine my sister never took her own life but I knew her,” Jennifer blinked twice, her head slouched in her shoulders, “she was poorly and refused treatment, time and time again. It would be more likely she took measures of her own, especially with Philippe dead. Then again if she painted this picture but had killed herself, how would the piece have gotten elsewhere? Grown legs, or been taken? By whom? For what reason… I don’t know.”
“How did she do it?”
“One shot to the head,” Jennifer signalled, pulling an imaginary gun at the temple. “Yet two shells were found in the room, like a standoff had taken place.”
“So, you think she was killed?” I pulled my knees to my chest in the chair, more than a chill in the air.
Jennifer’s big blue eyes didn’t seem to be lying as we maintained eye contact. “I personally think she was. An investigation took place and it was reasoned she had tried to end it all before, perhaps failed because of an intervention… and one was an old shell. The painting was considered a figment and the case closed aside from one detail unanswered to my satisfaction.”
“Yes?” I asked Jennifer—the little woman with the rapid tongue and the storytelling ability of the brothers Grimm.
“Cai was missing in action for three hours that day. Nobody knew where he was except when questioned, the Jackie girl from next door covered for him.”
I smiled. “There are a lot of assumptions here, Jennifer. A lot of dots connected with a leaking pen.”
She nodded. “I know what you must think but he is an angry man, Chloe. If you cannot see it, you are blind. He attacked me once, you know. Just the once. He got thrown out of college for brawling. The man is damaged and I wonder… I wonder what happened. I have this niggling doubt… always this doubt.”
I found it all hard to swallow and reiterated, “He has never, ever acted violently around me. Not once.”
I stared out of the window and fixated on the freezing temperatures gripping that house from the outside—the window panes decorated with icicles, flower boxes full of drifting snow. It was a house people took pride in but it wasn’t a home to live peacefully inside. I needed to find out why I felt so disturbed, even more so now.
“He is a beautiful man, Chloe. Yet tortured. I tried to do my best but I don’t know what to do anymore. I have warned you, I suppose. I just hope you’re right… he might have changed. He might not be anything like his father. Nor mother.”
I twitched with aggravation. “Our parents, grandparents, nor any of our other forebears dictate who we are or what we do. We always have a choice.”
She sniggered. “A choice? So that’s why my sister fell for a gardener, hmm?”
I left the room with her telling my back, “I warned you. Remember that.”
WHEN I got back downstairs, Cai was still out enjoying his ride for whatever reason. Claire thrust a bag of chestnuts and a roasting pan in my hand, asking if I would do the honours because it was one of Cai’s favourite Christmas treats.
As I sat on the stone hearth of the drawing-room fire, I didn’t think I could ever muster any enthusiasm about living in that house. Our lives were in the city and were busy, chaotic, and out of reach of this—the country, seclusion, escape. I decided to suggest he sell it before we ever considered getting married because I never wanted to have to return.
When Kincaid got back, he found me peeling skins. I felt rather pleased with myself for managing to roast almost half the bag without burning a single nut—anything to escape Jennifer’s words ringing in my ears. He knelt behind me to wrap his arms around my chest, his fingers chilled to the bone as he put them under my jumper for warmth, making me scream. I fell back into him and turned my head.
“I missed you, Chlo.”
“Hmm, I really missed you too.”
I turned into his lips and he kissed me softly, with a kind of tenderness you wouldn’t pair with a heavyweight nor a man of six foot three. I pulled myself onto his lap and French kissed him until my mouth bruised.